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Proving productive means putting aside food and drink

26 December 2015 138 views No Comment

As many Australians munch on leftover turkey, plum pudding and Christmas cake, liberally lubri­cated with booze, this is the time of year when many people realise they cannot continue drinking ­alcohol at such high and dangerous levels and be effective citizens and members of the nation.

Thus, on or before New Year’s Eve, a lot of Aussies will pledge to cut down their drinking or abstain altogether, while many will also commit to losing weight.

But while many focus on their individual problems, representatives of business argue that the best way of improving our productivity is to reduce corporate taxes. With such a narrowly economic and fiscal approach, corporate Australia may fail to understand that there may be other equally or more effective ways to improve productivity.

What if, instead of adopting an either/or approach, we tried to ­improve productivity while also trying to improve the health and wellbeing of the Australian people? Could these objectives be connected?

A recent study found absenteeism because of alcohol and other drug use (estimated at 2.5 million days lost annually) cost Australia $680 million per year.

Absenteeism because of injuries and illness related to alcohol and other drugs (estimated at almost 11.5 million days lost annually) cost $3 billion per year. The cost of absenteeism was based on an ­average day’s wage in 2013 ($267.70) plus 20 per cent on-costs.

This means alcohol and other drugs are substantial burdens on our businesses and on our socio-economic life.

At the same time, obesity, hardly likely to improve productivity, is still increasing in Australia. Escalating consumption of soft drinks and junk food has contributed to our expanding waistlines. The soft drink and junk food industries, like the alcohol and gambling industries, are very powerful and politically well connected.

This means the health of those at risk from various misuses and addictions is not given anything like appropriate and proper priority by government and the wider community.

A recent US study has rightly attracted attention. The authors, Angus Deaton, winner of the 2015 Nobel prize for economics, and his wife Anne Case found death rates rising significantly among middle-aged white Americans. This is even though death rates were falling in every other age group and every other racial and ethnic group.

Deaton and Case attribute this anomaly to increasing suicide rates and increasing alcohol and drug problems, especially among the poorly educated. Among middle-aged whites, increasing rates of liver disease from alcohol and soaring overdose deaths from heroin and prescription opioids are particularly important.

To my mind, these findings are comparable to the massive loss of life that occurred in the US in the early days of the HIV crisis.

Although not yet at the same per capita level as America, alarmingly Australia now records more than 2500 suicide deaths a year.

Indeed, suicide is the leading cause of death among Australians aged 15 to 44 years. Moreover, suicide rates are two to three times higher among Aborigines. Between a quarter and a half of people who take their own life have had severe problems with alcohol or with other drugs.

Although many commentators seem perplexed about the high rate of alcohol misuse in Australia, the answers are not all that complicated.

We know policies recommended by prevention experts — such as increasing the price of ­alcohol, reducing its availability, regulating alcohol advertising, and improving help for indivi­duals to curb or to quit their ­excessive drinking — can all work well.

Yet such effective policies ­remain routinely undervalued or ignored, while strategies recommended by the liquor industry, and by the soft drinks industry, ­including vaguely formulated plans for “increased education, are greeted with enthusiasm.

If Australia implemented known and effective health policies dealing with alcohol misuse and other addictions, we would undoubtedly reduce deaths and hospital admissions, reduce suicide, reduce obesity and increase productivity.

Since he became Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull has been urging Australia to become more agile and nimble. But it’s hard to be very agile and nimble if we are drinking more than we should and are also obese.

Turnbull has recommended many times that we drop policies that are not working and try different policies with a better chance of success.

The story goes that the drunk looking for his keys under a lamppost is asked if that is where he lost them. “No, he replies. “But this is where the light is brightest! It seems we have a similar approach to trying to improve our national productivity by using zero-sum strategies.

Isn’t it about time we tried to improve productivity while also significantly improving our health and wellbeing?

Emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 38 books, including his memoir ‘My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey’.

The Weekend Australian, December 26-27, 2017, Commentary, p 16.

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